First impressions are all in the mind – Unconscious Bias

“It’s not at all hard to understand a person; it’s only hard to listen without bias.”  ― Criss Jami, Killosophy

As part of a company wide program on corporate social responsibility, one of the major focuses is to recognise and try to manage the fact that we tend to make snap judgements of people and situations, what is known as Unconscious Bias, a phrase I had not heard of. This sparked me to want to find out more.

I recall reading in a book a long time ago about our ability as humans to make snap judgements of one another and that these “first impressions” tended to stick. The book also referenced a study carried out in the USA where students were shown silent 10 second video clips of lecturers teaching. The students were asked to score the lecturers purely on the video clip. Then the students actually attended classes run by the lecturers and afterwards, they were asked to rerate them. The results were correlated  and the result was that the scores matched, hence the idea that first impressions stick. [I include at the end of this blog post, a link to an article on this].

My question though is this: We believe that we are making snap judgements based on “facts” or impressions of people, but what if the decisions we’re making aren’t really based on the facts? What if we’re being influenced by hidden thoughts, memories and feelings we’re not even aware of? What if our decisions are made or at least influenced by feelings buried deep within the complex networks of our brain? What if it is these, not the dispassionate facts which are really driving our decisions?

In fact our behaviour towards other people is more likely to be influenced by our instinctive feelings than by any complex thinking about the facts at hand even if we convince ourselves it is purely a rational decision. There is a growing level of evidence that points to our unconscious people biases playing a significant part in the way we engage with people and the decisions we make about them.

It would appear that our brains are hard-wired to rapidly categorise people instinctively. We use the most obvious and visible categories to do this: sex, size of person, age, physical attractiveness, skin colour, ethnicity and disability. The last two points obvious candidates for the Human Resources police to jump on. However, we use many other less visible criteria such as; accent – north, or south, London or regional, social background, sexual orientation, nationality, religion, education, and even job title or organisational department. These criteria automatically assign a whole suite of unconscious characteristics, good and bad, to anyone categorised as being from that group. They are automatic and unconscious biases over which we have little control, and they influence everyone, no matter how unbiased we think we may be.

Scientists believe that unconscious bias evolved to help us quickly and effectively recognise supportive and positive people when we meet them for the first time. Imagine groups of early hunter gathers meeting. You have to recognise those that will be open and welcoming versus those that will be aggressive and challenging. Obviously, this ability has benefits even today, hence the ability has continued to evolve. When we met people for the first time, it is in the first few seconds that we make judgements about people. Judgements that tend to stick, even after we have known and worked with them for a while. One element is we tend to place people into groups – social psychologists call this phenomenon “social categorisation‟ whereby we routinely and rapidly sort people into groups rather than think of each as unique.

People form categories with which to prejudge others and other groups of people based on their prior experiences with a group, but also from what they have seen and heard in the media, on TV, in newspapers and magazines, much of which they will absorbed unconsciously. These are reinforced on a daily basis without us knowing, or thinking consciously about it. Each person’s categories give rise to their own personal set of values and these values help inform our individual identity. Once your set of values are set, it is very unlikely that you can change these without conscious effort.

The company I work for has just started an awareness programme on Unconscious Bias and one of the examples given to demonstrate how it can work is as follows:-

Imagine the following situation:

  • You are driving to a client meeting and your car breaks down. You call for a mechanic who tows your car to the garage to get it fixed.
  • You decide to get the train instead and whilst you are on the train, there is an announcement from the train driver telling you the train is running 5 minutes late.
  • You leave the train station and hail a taxi to take you to the clients office.
  • You arrive at the client’s office and the security guard asks you to sign in at the main reception desk.
  • The receptionist provides you with a name badge.
  • You meet the senior executive and their personal assistant in the boardroom and the meeting commences.

Chances are the following people came to mind:

  1. A male mechanic
  2. A male train driver
  3. A male taxi driver
  4. A male security guard
  5. A female receptionist
  6. A male Executive and a female personal assistant

The reason we automatically associate ‘male’ and ‘mechanic’ for instance is due to the human brain’s natural tendency to associate groups of people with key job roles. Again, these unconscious associations are formed through our socialisation.

Having looked at how unconscious bias develops, let’s now look at different types of unconscious bias.

Affinity bias is the fact that we like people who are like us or similar to us in some way. It makes our conversations easier and we feel comfortable and can be more open about who we are. I try to counter this by making sure that the teams and groups I work in have as broad a range of people – skill, age, gender, culture and ethnicity – as possible.

Ambiguity bias occurs where we are faced with limited information. We will seek to fill in gaps based on our own understanding of the candidate or individual and this will be linked to whether we have affinity with them or not. In most cases if there is affinity we will be looking to fill the gaps with a favourable interpretation of the missing information and vice versa where there is no affinity. I recently had to deal with a poor performing colleague. Rather than just make my own judgement, I asked for feedback from his work colleagues, people in other departments and also the people he was delivering service to. I asked open and positive questions to gain a balanced set of feedback.

Confirmation bias leads us to seek out and weight information which confirms what we already thought and makes us negate evidence which contradicts this. We gather evidence to justify our first impression. I was asked to lead a particular project on service. Rather than jump to my own conclusions, I asked others in the organisation for their impressions, comments and feedback first. This helped to give a more balanced insight into the issues, rather than my own opinion.

Comparison bias occurs when we compare people with other people. Our tendency is to look for and exaggerate any differences in order to categorise the individual effectively. This leads us to make a more subjective assessment of a candidate. The category we have given the individual in our mind is likely to affect how we perceive and react to them. We can be more objective when we compare each individual against criteria and focus on them as an individual. I was part of a recent graduate assessment centre event. Five graduates attended and went through individual competency based interviews, individual presentations and a group exercise. For each segment, each graduate was individually assessed by a different assessor. At the end of the event, all of the mark papers were handed in and scored. This removed the comparison bias element. We were able to reach a decision on the best candidate, based on facts rather than impressions.

Research tells us that if we are mindful of our decisions we can control them better, but bias control is less effective when we are cognitively or emotionally preoccupied. E.g. when we are:

  1.    Stressed
  2.    Under time pressure or rushing
  3.    Under emotional load – angry/upset
  4.    Physically tired
  5.    Relying on our impulses and habits.
  6.    These conditions may occur in even the best and most objective processes. When we see them occurring we need to take a moment and reflect.

Being biased is part of who we are. It is natural to gravitate to people who are like us. Being aware of “our biases” won’t remove them, but might help us manage them better. I won’t go into all of the HR details of how to manage recruitment, interviews, evaluations etc. in this post. If you want to know more, please get in touch.

I leave you with the following quote:

“When I look at a person, I see a person – not a rank, not a class, not a title.”  ― Criss Jami, Killosophy


Article on the 10 second video article:


Mindfulness Nation UK launch – backed by parliament

“A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom.” ― Martin Luther King Jr.

I finally managed to catch up on the latest announcements from the Oxford Mindfulness Centre. The 20th October 2015 was a landmark day for mindfulness here in the UK and potentially even globally. On that day, was published a parliamentary all party group report into the benefits of Mindfulness and its implications for health, wellbeing and social care here in the UK.

The Mindfulness All-Party Parliamentary Group (MAPPG), began an inquiry into the possible wider benefits of mindfulness practice over a year ago. Eight hearings later, and having listened to the testimonies of eighty expert witnesses, the group was ready to publish its report. Among the recommendations are expanding the availability of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) courses in the NHS, developing mindfulness in education by supporting pioneer schools programmes, offering courses for government staff, and introducing the training to offenders in the criminal justice system. All these measures would be supported by care to ensure high quality mindfulness teaching.

The report covers:

  • 1. What is mindfulness?

The twelve recommendations that cover the following areas

  • 2. The role of mindfulness in health
  • 3. The role of mindfulness in education
  • 4. The role of mindfulness in the workplace
  • 5. The role of mindfulness in the criminal justice system

Finally, how to implement the recommendations backed by well trained and informed Mindfulness teachers and leaders.

  • 6. The implementation challenge


And that is that. I would encourage you to download the report and if nothing else read the twelve recommendations. If you are new to Mindfulness, the introduction gives a great overview of what Mindfulness is.

The Oxford Mindfulness Centre launch article:

You can listen to an audio recording of the Mindful Nation UK report launch event here.

The Mindfulness All-Party Parliamentary Group (MAPPG) report:

I leave you with the following quote that touched me. Having worked in the prison service for three years as a volunteer, I came to know some of the isues discussed in the report.:

“It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”

Nelson Mandela

How you can forgive Yourself and Other People

““The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” Mahatma Gandhi, All Men are Brothers: Autobiographical Reflections

One of the biggest issues we have, at work, in our social interactions and personal lives, it the ability to forgive and move on. Too often, people bring up issues and commentary about people that is generally conjecture and opinioned. We also individually beat ourselves up constantly when we fail to do something; when we fail to achieve a goal;, when we have failed in our own personal expectations or when we believe we have failed to meet someone else’s perceived  expectations.

Part of living a balanced life, I think, is the ability to forgive. Not necessarily forget, but our ability to forgive ourselves and others for a perceived transgression. For some people, forgiveness is a foreign land, never to be visited, shunned and avoided. They carry the hurt and issues like a snail carries its shell, permanent and unyielding. What then tends to happen is that the hurt and issues become so embedded, that they affect how the person thinks and feels and acts. More negative, less trusting, quicker to anger, quicker to resent, etc, etc. You may agree, or you may not.

I have always sought to forgive and move on. At times it has been difficult, but since taking up mindfulness, there is one of the meditations that is taught in the eight-week Mindfulness Stress Reduction program, the Befriending Meditation, that can really help you.

It is also known as the Forgiveness meditation. This is one of THE most powerful practices available. Having practiced it regularly, I can feel the difference in my normal day-2-day activities and the engagement that I have with people. I am less self-critical; more open; honest; forgiving and engaging. People have reacted to the change in me, by becoming more open, honest and engaging themselves. At work, when an issue arises, rather than seek to do the “blame game” on someone, I seek to understand what the issues was, what caused it and how to prevent it in the future. People feel more trusted and self-aware of their actions. In fact, the number of issues has fallen as a result.

So what is the Befriending Meditation? This is focused on helping you‘… bring kindness back into your life – kindness not just for others but for yourself too.’ This is where you are guided through the concept of self-acceptance and self-forgiveness. Once you have started to move along that path, you extend it to your loved ones, your family, etc.

The meditation focuses on these three key phrases as a gateway into a deep sense of  friendliness towards yourself:

May I be safe and free from suffering

May I be as happy and as healthy as it is possible to be

May I have ease of being

It is about repeating these slowly and silently in your mind. The analogy is further extended by imagining dropping a pebble down a deep well and listening for the ‘sound’ as it hits the water.  Being aware of any thoughts. Feelings. Or physical body sensations.

You are then encouraged to extend the phrase to holding a person, or even a pet, in mind who in the present or past loved you unconditionally. At this point, I think of our dogs and specifically Mitzie. She is always running up to me and giving me licks and showing complete unconditional love, even when there is no food involved!  Though if there is food, she goes nuts.

You are then asked to repeat the phrases while holding a loved one in mind and wishing them well.

May they be safe and free from suffering

May they be as happy and as healthy as it is possible to be

May they have ease of being

Next a stranger or someone you see regularly, perhaps on a bus, or at work, but you didn’t know their name.

May they be safe and free from suffering

May they be as happy and as healthy as it is possible to be

May they have ease of being

Next, and this is where is can become harder, extend to someone whom you have found difficult at the moment. Perhaps a member of the family or someone at work. For a lot of people, it is very difficult to remain calm, but with this practices, it leads you to it slowly and you feel in control.

May they be safe and free from suffering

May they be as happy and as healthy as it is possible to be

May they have ease of being

Finally, to close you extend loving kindness to all living beings on the planet, including yourself. That is the rhythm and approach. I would suggest you give it a try. It is amazing what you might feel.

May all be safe and free from suffering

May all be as happy and as healthy as it is possible to be

May all have ease of being

If you have specific ways that you practice or ways you have developed, feel free to share.

The specific Befriending Meditation for you to listen to, can be found at:


I leave you with the following quote:

“The truth is, unless you let go, unless you forgive yourself, unless you forgive the situation, unless you realize that the situation is over, you cannot move forward.”

Steve Maraboli, Unapologetically You: Reflections on Life and the Human Experience

Mindfulness practice & habit

“Practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good. It’s the thing you do that makes you good.”

Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success

In recent conversations on mindfulness, two of the key reasons why people say that they do not practice mindfulness, is they either do not have the time to practice or if they start to practice, the practice falls off. They then go into a negative cycle of recriminations.

Time: The first set of questions people have is, “ How do you make the time?” “I can not make the time to practice”, “Does it take a long time to practice? I heard you have to do it for 30 minutes a day?”

The latest research shows that you do not have to sit for 30 to 40 minutes a day to start to gain the benefits. I don’t think any of us can spend up to 40 minutes just sitting in meditation every day. Even sessions as short as 3 minutes have been found to work. The key is to do the sessions spread out during the day. A short session in the morning. Perhaps a short 3 minutes breath session at lunch time and one in the evening. Whatever works for you.

It has been found that practicing for 10 minutes per day for 5 days or more per week is better than practicing for one hour once per week. So you need to think about the frequency as well as the time you put aside.

Habit: Habits are very easy to create and very hard to break. As the 19th-century psychologist William James observed, “All our life … is but a mass of habits.” According to Charles Duhigg’s bestselling book, the Power of Habit, there are three keys to the creation of a habit. They are:

  • Reminder (the trigger that initiates the behavior): Some of the most successful mindfulness apps on the market allow you to set a reminder on a daily basis, when to practice mindfulness, either, a meditation or stepping back into the present moment. I use my diary to help me. Some people, set aside a fixed time during the day. Whatever works for you. 
  • Routine (the behavior itself; the action you take): THis is the actual behavior itself. I have built a habit where I listen to guided meditations. I find them better than silent practice. Some people prefer the silence. Some, prefer one type of practice. Others prefer variety. I have included some guided meditation links at the end of this article for reference.
  • Reward (the benefit you gain from doing the behavior): As with all habits, the more you do the practice, the bigger the benefit you get. When I started, I wrote down the benefits I saw and felt in myself and used this as positive re-enforcement. If you use an app, you can record the outcomes you get and then play back these another time.


Mindfulness helps you to stand back from your thoughts and view them objectively. It helps you to engage with moment to moment living. Mindfulness, is not just the practice of meditation, it is being mindful in the present moment. Don’t forget, Mindfulness is NOT about clearing your mind. In fact, mind wandering is needed for mindfulness. It is the directing of the mind, that is the key.

If you have specific ways that you practice or ways you have developed, feel free to share.

I leave you with the following quote:

“Whatever happens around you, don’t take it personally… Nothing other people do is because of you. It is because of themselves.”  ― Miguel Ruiz, The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom


Free guided meditations:


The latest insights on Mindfulness from Professor Mark Williams

“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” ― Dalai Lama XIV, The Art of Happiness

As one of the foremost authorities on mindfulness and the UK’s leading professor on the development of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy [or MBCT as it is known], when I come across a talk or update from Professor Mark Williams, I always take the time to listen and find out what are the latest developments in the field of Mindfulness in the therapy and treatment arena.

Professor Mark Williams is Emeritus Professor of Clinical Psychology and Honorary Senior Research Fellow in the Department of Psychiatry and was Director of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre until his retirement in 2013. Professor Williams, along with colleagues John Teasdale and Zindel Segal, developed Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy for prevention of relapse and recurrence in major depression. However, I came across him through the book that he wrote, “Mindfulness: A practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world”, that was published in 2011. The core of the book is the eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program, that Mark developed. Anyway, back to the latest research updates.

Many of the latest research centres on the benefits of mindfulness, for both general well-being as well as for those that are suffering from mental health issues, such as depression.

  • Amount of time to practice. Shorter mindfulness practices are just as beneficial as longer practices. In fact, practicing for 10 minutes in the morning, as well as the evening, is just as good as setting aside one session of 20 to 30 minutes. So you do not have to put aside such a large part of your day.
  • Frequency versus Duration. It has been found that practicing for 10 minutes per day for 5 days or more per week is better than practicing for one hour once per week
  • Ruminating. We ruminate or spend time inward thinking about things, events, situations and worrying about 47% of the time that we are awake. Mindfulness helps to reduce the levels of stress, helping to flatten out the highs and the lows during the day
  • Age of depression. This shocked me. Depressions starts young. As young as 13 to 15 years of age.
  • 75% of people who have ever been depressed  start before they are 25 years old
  • On average a person with depression has at least 4 months of a year with what is called functional impairment, meaning they are unable to do even the most basic of life’s activities.

Major depression is the No.1 psychological disorder in the western world. It is growing in all age groups, in virtually every community, and the growth is seen most in the young, especially teens.  At the rate of increase, it will be the 2nd most disabling condition in the world by 2020, behind heart disease.

The good news? Practicing Mindfulness therapy programmes such as Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy [MBCT] reduces depression by 50%, yes, it halves the rates of depression and is as effective as antidepressants. About 20% of the population are classified as depressed, that is 1 in 5 of us has a depressive issue. But hang on. What about those of us who are not depressed? The other 4 people? Well, for the majority, we all suffer from stress and anxiety and this is where the practice of stepping back from the current situation, appreciating what you have and being able to move on comes into its own. This is what Professor Williams talks about in the his book. I see no reason why any of us should have to lead lives that are so stressful and full of anxiety. Having practiced mindfulness techniques for the past two years,c I can feel, see and experience the benefits and the more relaxed and unstressed approach to work, life, relationships and general existence. Am I perfect? No, not at all. I still have stressed out days at work – one day this week was particularly terrible, but my ability to bounce back to a more rational mindset, I put down to mindfulness.

As always, I leave you with a quote:

“Whatever may be the tensions and the stresses of a particular day, there is always lurking close at hand the trailing beauty of forgotten joy or unremembered peace.”

Howard Thurman, Meditations of the Heart

The interview was held at the Mindfulness Summit. Please find enclosed a link if you would like to listen to the interview:

Day 1 – An interview with Mark Williams: An Introduction to Mindfulness along with two short mindfulness practices.

Mindfulness and the stress of business

“Being the richest man in the cemetery doesn’t matter to me. Going to bed at night saying we’ve done something wonderful… that’s what matters to me.” ― Steve Jobs

If you work in a business, at some point you are going to have to sit in front of your colleagues and present an update on the business. Whether this is yearly, quarterly or even monthly, this is the beating of the company business review cycle. I have worked in organisations where the reviews can be any and all of the above. I think probably, the only company where this does not happen with such rigor, is if you run your own one person company.

I am in the current company review cycle. The normal process is to review current performance for the month that has just past and to then predict what will happen the following month. However, every quarter, there is the quarterly review, where the focus is on the next three to six months and to forward plan the business results. Now, this takes time, skill, lots of effort and understanding of the business. And, unless you are in a guaranteed utility business  where the run rate of the business can be predicted over a long time scale – say years – requires a degree of, how can I put it, guess work.

So how can mindfulness play into this? For the past six months, I have been deliberately practicing a series of mindfulness exercises during this preparation period and even more so, on the day of the review. The reason is twofold: to help me reduce the tension and stress of the review and more importantly: enable me to be more focused in both the preparation and delivery of the review.

How does it work? For the three or four days leading up the final meeting I do the following. Firstly, I get up early. Well, if you are like me, your mind is going to going at a 100mph anyway, so why on earth stay in bed and ruminate when you can be doing something about it. I practice mindfulness movement exercises and focus really hard on the movements to still the mind. Secondly, I practice a forgiving meditation – this I will cover in a separate post. The combination eases my mind and at the same time, makes me feel more calm as I carry out the review.

So what is Mindful Movement? A short explanation follows:-

Mindful Movement: You want to start at the top of the body, with head and neck movements. Next you move onto the shoulders and the arms. Finally you move down the body to the feet. I base mine on the audio CD of the book “Mindfulness: Finding peace in a frantic world”, though you may have your own approach.

One of the areas it has helped me to identify is where I have a stress related pain. Generally, in my neck and shoulder area. It has helped me to “lean into that area” as the exercise suggests. First, recognising that the pain is there and also the reason for the pain – the stress. Next, it asks you to accept the pain and move into the pain, exploring with kindness, what that pain is. I know this sounds really weird, but trust me, give it a try for a few days and it really, really works.

The website with the guide notes and also an audio of the exercise is in the link below. Please do try it out, it makes such a difference. I would like to thank the following people at work: Alka, Becky, Carla, Verity and Paul. Your questions and discussion on Mindfulness last week prompted this post. I hope it helps you all as well.

Exercise audio instructions

I leave you with the following quote:

“Our life is made up of time; our days are measured in hours, our pay measured by those hours, our knowledge is measured by years. We grab a few quick minutes in our busy day to have a coffee break. We rush back to our desks, we watch the clock, we live by appointments. And yet your time eventually runs out and you wonder in your heart of hearts if those seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years and decades were being spent the best way they possibly could. In other words, if you could change anything, would you?” Cecelia Ahern, Love, Rosie

What is “REST” really all about and a new survey that will help define it

“Learning to let go should be learned before learning to get. Life should be touched, not strangled. You’ve got to relax, let it happen at times, and at others move forward with it.”  ― Ray Bradbury

Driving home after an evening spent at a group mindfulness meeting, I was listening to the radio and picked up a programme all about “Rest”. Rest you ask? It would appear that there is no clear definition of what rest is and how people define it is unique to each person.

What do I think rest is?  Being able to relax and not worry about other things? Is that it?

I think rest can be anything from stopping entirely to doing something, to do something completely different from you’ve been doing already. Rest is not just a physical thing, it is not just an absence of activity. For me it is taking time out for myself, giving myself space to re-centre and renew myself. Mindfulness helps, as does going for a walk or listening to a podcast or even reading a book. You might think these are activities, but to me they are restful.

The interview was with Dr Felicity Callard from Durham University. She is the Director of Hubbub, a group of people who come from disciplines as diverse as neuroscience, poetry and art. They are in residence at the Wellcome Collection in London, studying the topic of rest and what happens when we rest from relaxation to mind-wandering.  And it turns out that not quite being able to define it is nothing new. They discussed right the way back to medieval monks and the challenge they faced in terms of trying to stop their minds wandering off onto things they shouldn’t be thinking about.

The concept of rest in society sometimes carries connotations of idleness and a person who is idle is viewed very pejoratively by the rest of society. It is rare that being idle is seen as a good thing in western culture, certainly with the protestant work ethic. In fact, being seen as super busy is seen as macho and a positive.

They then posed the following question: “What does rest mean to you?”

They then followed up with the fact that as part of the Wellcome programme, they have set up an online survey that you can take for free.

What is the Rest Test about and what does it involve?

The Rest Test is designed to explore people’s attitudes and opinions towards rest and rest-related experiences. It is made up of two parts. When you have completed the test you’ll be given an instant summary of the results from the first part of survey, which will allow you to see how your responses compare to those who have taken the questionnaire so far.

To take the test, like I did, go to the following:

To listen the Radio 4 programme – All in the Mind – The Rest Test
I leave you with the following quote from my favorite philosopher, writer and speaker :

“The meaning of life is just to be alive. It is so plain and so obvious and so simple. And yet, everybody rushes around in a great panic as if it were necessary to achieve something beyond themselves.”

Alan W. Watts, The Culture of Counter-Culture: Edited Transcripts